ISU/YouthBuild partnership empowers young adults, develops educators
School of Teaching and Learning Associate Professor Erin Mikulec is passionate about engaging new communities and cultures in the U.S. and across the globe, from England to Finland to Australia. She utilizes international experiences to enrich her teacher education courses, and also leads study abroad trips each summer. But she says her exploration of Bloomington-Normal has proven to be just as valuable as some of her overseas jaunts.
A few years ago, when Mikulec was still relatively new to Illinois State, she discovered the nonprofit organization and charter school YouthBuild while driving by a partially abandoned strip mall off of Wylie Drive in Normal, near Galaxy Cinema.
“I realized I had driven past YouthBuild several times before and quickly decided it was time to check it out,” Mikulec said.
A front office staff member provided the teacher educator with a short tour of the building, including observation of student learning in action.
“What I saw was a nontraditional learning environment between students and their instructors. It was truly unique, and off the beaten path in terms of the type of experiences a typical teacher candidate might have,” Mikulec said. “I immediately wanted to find out more and see if I could connect future teachers with this work.”
She left her business card and a short note for the facility’s director.
YouthBuild is one of more than 300 nonprofits in Central Illinois, and is focused on delivering course content and technical skills to young adults ages 16–24 who were unable to finish high school, for a variety of reasons.
“The undeniable truth is, traditional schooling just does not work for all learners’ circumstances. Sometimes those obstacles may be a learning disorder and/or a challenging home life,” Mikulec said.
Year-round educational programs help students earn their high school diploma or GED, move on to college, and become workforce ready. Differentiated learning is a primary focus. YouthBuild strives to meet the individualized needs of its students each day.
As an AmeriCorps program, YouthBuild has students devote half of their time to community service to sites in McLean County, such as day cares, nursing homes, and the YouthBuild construction site, where they erected eight homes in a single year. The revenue generated from selling these homes partially funds YouthBuild’s subsidized housing project for community members, which at times has included students of the program, its graduates, and their families.
Getting to work
Mikulec’s business card turned out to be the beginning of a mutually beneficial partnership. The YouthBuild team immediately reached out to the associate professor, and before long, her teacher candidates were part of the school’s volunteer force.
As of 2016, Mikulec has connected more than 50 aspiring high school teachers with YouthBuild. And because of their closeness in age, the Redbirds serve not only as tutors but also as powerful mentors.
“Many of the teacher candidates are just older, and on occasion, the same age as some of our students. Through this partnership our students gain access to individuals who are like themselves, but who simply made different choices,” said Kevin Bradley ’09, a YouthBuild instructor and Illinois State alum. “Most of our students will be first-generation college students, so having the chance to ask questions and explore these types of relationships are unique.
“All the while, future teachers get to see a different side of education, exploring what it takes to reach and connect with a different type of student. It’s a win-win!”
The experience expands the professional adaptability of the future teachers. Teacher candidates in Mikulec’s former 212 course completed clinical hours at a public high school in Central Illinois. In contrast, the educational setting at YouthBuild offers Redbirds a nontraditional teaching opportunity while simultaneously providing invaluable support to a nonprofit with limited resources and a strong need for volunteer tutors and classroom mentors.
“We introduce the groups with a training session where the teacher candidates and the YouthBuild students get to know each other and build trust. This starts the foundation, and my focus is to ensure my teacher candidates understand and teach the whole student, and then to ultimately help them to earn a diploma or GED,” Mikulec said.
The experience often has a profound impact on the way teacher candidates view the profession. Kevin Goffard, Mikulec’s former student, became so invested in the work that he later supported the course as a teaching assistant.
“I had no idea what YouthBuild was going to be like. But every time I went there, I was teaching something new, and adapting to the needs of different students. It got me out of my comfort zone in a good way,” Goffard said. “Every kid has a story, and to see society mislabel these kids as ‘bad’ is such a loss. They need someone to give them a chance, and that is what YouthBuild is about. They care about these students. That’s why I believe in them.”
Goffard begins student teaching high school history and theater in an urban setting this spring. He said his experience at YouthBuild expanded his perspective on what kind of teacher and community member he wants to be. Instead of returning to his hometown to teach, Goffard chose to work in the schools where students need him the most.
“The experience at YouthBuild transformed my life, and I never want to stop giving back and trying to make a difference,” he said.
Meet me in St. Louie, Louie
In 2015 Mikulec secured a modest grant that enabled a group of YouthBuild students and teacher candidates to visit the City Museum in St. Louis. The environment provided a unique opportunity for the two groups to not only learn about unique, interactive artifacts, but encourage comradery after studying stops.
“While the YouthBuild facility is certainly a change-of-pace when compared to a traditional classroom, the informal, creative setting of the museum challenged the teacher-student relationship in a new way,” Mikulec said.
The visit entailed a scavenger hunt pairing one to two YouthBuild students with a teacher candidate. The large, unfamiliar space required the groups to work together to explore and discover.
“Engaging students through unstructured social interaction does not always come naturally to teacher candidates,” Mikulec said. “Some of the groups eased into the activity slowly, while others jumped right in and started to strategize, laugh, and learn with each other.”
For Goffard, the trip served as a valuable confidence-builder for aspiring educators as their student teaching semester draws near.
“Dr. Mikulec is constantly trying to find new, innovative ways to challenge us as teacher candidates,” he said. “On this trip we said that we felt like we saw a new side of our YouthBuild students: important parts of their personalities that never saw the light of day in the classroom.”
Mikulec is already planning a future off-site visit between Illinois State and YouthBuild in 2016. The purpose is to further cultivate creative teacher candidates who inspire learning inside and outside of the classroom. And when other valuable partnership opportunities come her way, she is always ready with a few extra business cards.